Howard Jacobson: One by one, the so-called pillars of our civilisation tumble shamefully

Money was always a temptation for New Labour. What else did the ‘New’ stand for?

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So let's just see where we are again. We as homo sapiens I mean, we as a supposed improvement on those blind progenitors of ours who swam in the primeval soup without a thought but survival in their rudimentary brains. This could, I acknowledge, be a futile exercise.

Somewhere in a cave on the Afghan-Pakistani border a branch of the family is sitting in the dust and rolling the dice of death, imagining a world cleansed of everybody but itself, and if things work out the way it wants them we'll be back in the primeval soup anyway. But I don't know – call me a dreamer – I just think we should go on giving ourselves termly reports on our progress on the off chance a few of us survive. It would be nice for our children to read. Learn about what mummy and daddy did between the Second World War and Whatever Happened Next.

We can leave China to the Chinese – they will Google or they won't. And we can leave America to the Americans – hooray for healthcare, but the atmosphere of venomous fatuity in which Obama's bill has limped towards the finishing line proves you can have all the access to enlightenment that Google brings, but if you choose ignorance, ignorant you stay. As for Africa – we don't talk about it. And the Middle East – we none of us have the time.

Which leaves, since I never promised inclusiveness, Continental Europe, where the French First Lady might or might not be wearing a bra today, as might or might not whoever the Italian Prime Minister is taking out to dinner – and us. I propose we stick with us. Not because we are uniquely disgusting, but because you can't go cleaning up other people's houses when you're living in a pigsty.

Compared to the expenses scandal, the latest "cab for hire" manifestation of small greed in high places has not occasioned as much outrage as one might have anticipated. Some commentators have wondered whether, since Byers, Moran, Hewitt and Hoon are spent forces anyway, their offers of under-the-counter services amount to anything other than low-level prostitution, the equivalent of telephone sex – more brag than shag. Or it could just be that we expect nothing of any of them now; that after claiming for hubby's porn and floating duck islands they have nothing left with which to shock us. If so, we've underestimated them. This time they've dug below the bottom of the barrel we'd thought they'd scraped.

Fiddling your expenses is a venial offence – expenses have a fiddle-clause built into them: you have to claim for the cup of tea you didn't buy to make up for all those you did buy but forgot to mention – but playing Pandarus to your own professional disinterestedness is a root and branch betrayal of trust and a deep shame, for which the stocks or the ducking stool would be too mild a punishment.

That a serving politician should have no interests which might conflict with what he owes those who voted for him ought to go without saying. Never mind declare those interests: don't have them. If you can't survive without a clutch of directorships, stay out of politics. And stay out of politics, too, if the clutch of directorships waiting for you when you've finished is all that's attracting you to Westminster in the first place.

There are other things a man might do with his retirement. Read Dickens. Listen to Mozart. Dig his bloody garden – who knows, he might find a few copper coins he can grub for in the dirt. Indigence is no excuse. Indigence is relative. Where the cost of making money is dishonour, it is not a foregone moral conclusion that you must choose the money.

But money always was a temptation too slithery to say no to for New Labour. What else did the "New" stand for? No more old-fashioned distaste for wealth. The rich would be our friends and we'd grow rich ourselves on the contiguity. I never bought the "Bliar, Bliar, pants on fire" rhetoric; a man can err and tell the truth; a man can build his house on gold and tell the truth. But without doubt Blair was a sucker for the blandishments of fame and fortune, and his legacy in these dying days of old New Labour lingers like a poison.

Money is not only the goal, money is the measure. We have nothing else to gauge value by. How do you know you amount to anything? How do you know society prizes you? Money. The banker's creed and now the politician's: money is worth, worth is money, that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.

Oh, and of course money's bastard little offspring, fame-lite. This, too, contributed to the deep shame of Byers and the rest – the apeing not only of influence but celebrity pizzazz, the vitalistic charm of it, the nothing too serious about it, the easy self-promotion as though auditioning for Jonathan Ross. What was it that that malingerer Margaret Moran, the sitting, if of late largely absent, MP for Luton South, promised her fake lobbyist? – that if offered the sort of thing that interested her she'd "go whoomph!", her arms windmilling wildly, her girly laugh infecting even herself, much like a presenter of something no one ever watches on daytime telly.

Once upon a time the shamed might have taken themselves into a retreat, knelt an hour by the cross, whispered their contrition to a priest. But God's servants are scarcely faring better than Mammon's. The Catholic Church has been saying sorry to its victims, but it's hard to avoid the impression that what it's actually apologising for is covering up its sins, not the ambience of cruelty and contempt in which its sinfulness was at every level winked and connived at – as though its lies as to the Catholic Church's occupational paedophilia are of more consequence than the occupational paedophilia itself.

This is how the apology should have gone: "Sorry, everybody, for having turned a faith of no small philosophic subtlety into a club for sodomy. We will think again. About the way we dress, about our incensed obduracy, about the exclusive masculinism of our cult, but above all about the celibacy fetish which turns out, as it was bound to turn out, to be a fetish for the opposite. Those who deny the flesh are the first to be its servants. St Paul got it badly wrong. Marrying isn't just better than burning, it's better than buggery."

So who does that leave who's not buggering us up? Slip me a fiver for my trouble and I'll tell you.

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